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Uphill Battle – Grambling’s ‘Back to the Basics’ strength and conditioning program challenges an athlete’s body as well as his mind.

by: Thomas Stallworth
Former Strength and Conditioning Coach, Grambling State University
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With the end of the spring semester, our players understand that it is only two-three weeks before we begin our summer workouts. With the start of those workouts, they also understand that we are officially preparing for the upcoming season. Since we are a BCS program, we are financially restricted in terms of paying for our athletes to attend both summer school sessions but they are at least able to attend the second session (late June – late July). For those athletes that are fortunate enough to attend both sessions, they are able to experience our entire linear periodization program for lifting (from muscular hypertrophy, muscular endurance, strength, and power) and conditioning (aerobic endurance, anaerobic/speed endurance – long distances to short distances).

Our two sessions are four to five weeks long. During our first session (late-May to late-June), our players are lifting three days a week (Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday). Conditioning follows immediately after weights on Tuesday and Thursday and there is  an entire team run on Friday morning. The foundation for our program is based on creating functionally sound athletes. We don’t emphasize strength/testing numbers but make our program applicable to the field of play. In order for us to obtain that goal, all of our workouts are total-body, push/pull, and formulated.

With that philosophy for the first session, our program design will consist of one compound movement from the “Hang” position (Clean + Front Squat, Snatch + Overhead Squat, Clean + Jerk) and a posterior chain movement for the lower body. Since we are using compound movements, we will work high to moderate volume (4-5 set x 3-5 reps) throughout the course of each session because we are using this for physical preparation before the more intense lifting begins in the second session. Then, for the upper-body, we use straight bar modalities for the chest, back, shoulders, biceps, and triceps. These exercises are also being performed with high volume (3-4 sets) and at low to moderate intensity (8-10 rep; 60-75%).

The conditioning element for players that are attending the first session is not as demanding as those that attend the second session only because they have an 8-10 week time period. We will have a form of aerobic-based, interval-training (no clock) on Tuesday, and a form of anaerobic/speed endurance (on the clock/timed) on Thursday and Friday. For our Tuesday conditioning, we use laps (around the field) and 100-yard suicides (every 10-yards and back). On Thursday and Friday, we use 300-yard shuttles and Full Gassers with moderate volume (3-5 reps), Half-Gassers and 110-yard sprints with high volume (10-14 reps).

Our second session schedule is a lot more intense because now we are going to a full week (5-day) plan and the weight load is increasing (80-95%) as well as the conditioning demands. The weightlifting days will still remain the same (Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday – total body) but we are now incorporating “Mat Drills” (agilities) on Wednesday and Friday plus “The Hill” on Thursday after weights. Now, players are still conditioning three days a week, but the three days are now Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.

We are no longer performing compound movements during the second session but returning to more traditional exercises (e.g., power clean, bench press, and back squat). However, we are incorporating more dumbbell and resistance bands/tubes exercises for the upper-body modalities as well. It is a way to increase flexibility and joint stability. There is a more concentrated concern on high-risk injury sites so we include “pre-hab” exercises for the ankles, groin, hips, and shoulders because our player numbers have increased. Our conditioning emphasis now shifts from endurance to speed in order to target the anaerobic energy system. That means that the sprints are less than 50-yards (in distance) and are between 5-10 seconds (in time).

Within the agility days, the players will go through four stations which will consist of bag, cone, ladder, and reaction drills before conditioning at the end of this session. The agility drills are set up within 5-yard parameters and require a short sprint (5-8 yards) to “finish” the drill. Because we treat these days with a “game-day element” – there are 5-yard penalties for infractions during the stations throughout the entire workout. This could include not sprinting past the final cone, walking on the field, not properly completing a drill, and not being in a ready/football position before the start of the drill.

That 5-yard penalty is added to the end of the drill when the final sprint is required. So if two players have infractions during the course of one drill, that is an additional 10-yards added to the original 5-8 yard distance.

During our agility workouts, the emphasis is not only on conditioning but on the basic elements of our program (effort, attitude, and discipline) as well. Our players are constantly reminded that encouragement is the key to having successful workouts because we want every player to finish just as strong as they started. They understand that negative attitudes will not be tolerated and that there are consequences of them. These demands from our staff are part of the reason that we have only had three conference losses over the past three seasons.

While the Wednesday workout is challenging, the Thursday workout is the most physically and mentally challenging workout because of our “Hill.” Our stadium has two hills, one in each end zone, that have a high (15 degrees) slope and are 20 and 30 yards long. When we train on the hill during the summer, the drills are completely against conventional sprint-training wisdom, but purely about character and team-building.

After weights, the players will perform a variety of drills (e.g., forward sprints, backpedals, double-leg hops, shuffles, etc.) all the way to the top of the hill. If one athlete stops during the course of the hill, it is an incomplete rep for the entire group. The reason that this tends to be so demanding is that most players think that their legs are completely gone after a regular back squatting workout. But this is just another opportunity for teammates to push each other and for players to give just a little more than they thought was possible.

About the Author: Coach Thomas Stallworth was named Assistant Strength Coach at Mississippi State last fall. He coached at Grambling State for three seasons and, prior to that, coached at South Carolina State for five years. Stallworth was a special teams player at the University of Tennessee (1997-2001) and then became a graduate assistant at the school.


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